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Illini bounce back, hang on to beat Northwestern

Illinois' Malcolm Hill dunks during Wednesday's game against Northwestern. | Associated Press

Coach John Groce and his Illini have been through a lot during the early part of their Big Ten season.

During a 72-67 victory against Northwestern at Welsh-Ryan Arena, the Illini looked as if they had been hardened by their recent challenges. They only committed three turnovers and shot an improved 41.9 percent.

Coming into the rivalry game, Illinois had lost leading scorer Rayvonte Rice to a broken left hand and had played four of its first five conference games away from Champaign. Their last game was a loss at Nebraska on Sunday, when they made 27.3 percent of their shots and squandered one of their strongest defensive efforts of the season.

Groce was pleased that his team picked up its shooting against NU.

“It was as good as we’ve played offensively in a while, and not just because we made shots,” Groce said. “Certainly that’s a part of it, but I thought we executed really well. We played with more purpose. We played a lot more intelligently.”

Despite that, the Illini (12-6, 2-3) needed Kendrick Nunn (25 points) to make four free throws over the last 10 seconds to seal a hard-fought and much-needed victory. Aaron Cosby added 19 and Malcolm Hill had 10 for the Illini, who outscored Northwestern 14-0 off turnovers.

Groce’s guys played with more energy and it helped them get a victory in a game they never really put away.

“Just better confidence,” Nunn said. “Guys have got to step up — and that’s what we did.”

Illinois picked up a victory in its first game after its own disappointment, but the Wildcats couldn’t do the same. The learning process that goes with such a young roster continued.

Bryant McIntosh led the Wildcats with 16 points and Alex Olah had 14 points and 12 rebounds, but Northwestern (10-7, 1-3) couldn’t go one step further than Sunday’s disappointing 84-77 loss at Michigan State. As in that game in East Lansing, the Wildcats showed progress, but the result was frustratingly the same.

“We just learned we had to get better. We have to take another step forward,” McIntosh said. “It’s nice we’ve shown some progress, but losing is not acceptable. That’s all there is to it.”

That attitude probably would encourage coach Chris Collins. But he sounded frustrated about his team’s defense, more specifically, its inability to force turnovers

“It’s life in the Big Ten. You play tough, hard-fought games. They come down to a possession here, possession there,” Collins said. “It’s what it was again.”

Illinois looked as if it were more able to deal with that, albeit not by very much.

“I thought we executed late-game. Our guys executed after timeouts better,” Groce said. “I just thought we played with a lot of purpose. Certainly an indicator of that would be the three turnovers, which were all dead-ball turnovers. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that in a college basketball game that I’ve been a part of.”